Why we respond to actors who undergo extreme physical transformations

Matthew McConaughey underwent extreme weight-loss for the movie "The Dallas Buyers Club" - losing 40 pounds, he is one of many actors who have undergone extreme physical transfromations

Matthew McConaughey underwent extreme weight-loss for the movie “The Dallas Buyers Club” – losing 40 pounds, he is one of many actors who have undergone extreme physical transfromations

Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey (The Dallas Buyers Club), Sally Fields (Lincoln), Christian Bale (The Machinist), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) and Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) are just a few of Hollywood’s actors and actresses who have undergone extreme physical transformations to play their respective roles in various Hollywood motion pictures. In each instance, the actor/actress has drawn strong praise or even won an award for their role, for their dramatic physical transformation. Why? What is it about those roles and transformations that garners attention from the public and awards from the critics?

Natalia Marriaga interviews Human Behavior Expert and Celebrity Life Coach Patrick Wanis, PhD for his analysis and insights into viewer’s responses to remarkable and extreme physical transformations by Hollywood’s actors and actresses.

Natalia: Anne Hathaway, Sally Field and Jennifer Lawrence are being praised because of their roles. They are great roles but they also endured physical transformations.

Some of them put on weight, some of them lost weight. And there has been a pattern for the past few years whenever a star, an actress or an actor, either loses or gains significant weight for a role, he/she becomes nominated for an award.

This is not necessarily a guarantee but why is it that physical transformation for a role earns an artist’s performance that much praise and sometimes an award?

Patrick: Well, first and foremost, because we are primarily visual people. We respond to something that is a physical dramatic transformation. We are visual people, that’s number one and so we respond to something that is visually a dramatic transformation.

Number two, we always recognize how hard it is for each of us to make those physical transformations whether it’s losing weight or even putting on weight. So, therefore, we think that the person, the actor is more talented or has worked harder to make that physical transformation possible.

The third thing is that it also makes the role more believable. The role that they play becomes more believable because they look different. So that’s another reason why we respond to it.

Number four is that we recognize that a physical transformation also creates a mental and emotional transformation and the role becomes more believable. When we look at Matthew McConaughey, who has lost 40 pounds for his new movie The Dallas Buyers Club, and he’s supposed to be extremely sick (an AIDS patient), we actually believe that he is sick.

I said that it was more believable but we also start to feel it rather than just him trying to convince us that he is sick through his acting. He is already convincing us purely by his physical presence.

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Natalia: Many critics say that Anne Hathaway will inevitably win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Les Miserables. How is it that she should be the winner? Because, for example, Sally Field also put on a lot of weight; she put on 25% more of weight for Lincoln. So what is it about Anne Hathaway’s transformation that makes it more impressive or more deserving?

Patrick: Because we respond to whatever is the more dramatic transformation and it’s much more dramatic when a person loses weight than puts on weight. Number two, the emotional attachment or the emotional association we have with losing is much more extreme and intense than putting on weight.

So for example, if your friend puts on 30-40 pounds, you respond with “Wow!” But if your friend loses 30 or 40 pounds and looks very, very sick and very, very unhealthy, we respond with even more shock or concern. Losing weight, particularly if it’s a large amount, creates a greater emotional response in the viewer.

So for example, Tom Hanks played the AIDS victim in Philadelphia. Now compare him with Eddie Murphy who played the fat man, and everyone just says, “Well, he’s putting on a fat suit.” Or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal.

So we know that she can put on a fat suit. We have a lot more sympathy and a lot more empathy if we think the person is really, really sick. And we often don’t think that someone that puts on weight is sick, we blame them. We think of the person who has lost extreme amounts of weight as a victim but we think of the person who has put on extreme amounts of weight as a glutton.

christian bale skinny the machinist extreme transformation

Christian Bale underwent extreme physical transformation for his role in the movie “The Machinist” (left)

Natalia: Yeah, of course. So for example, talking about thin, you mentioned Matthew McConaughey before. He is stick-thin right now for this role in which he plays an AIDS patient. And the movie is not even out yet but some people are suggesting that that transformation could be Oscar-worthy in 2014. Why would that be? All we know from this role is that he has lost a lot of weight. We haven’t seen anything from his acting.

Patrick: Because whatever role he is playing, if the role requires that he’d be so skinny and he looks like he is sick, he has already performed more than half of the role through his physical transformation. And we think, “Oh, he must be a great actor because he has lost so much weight.” When really, that doesn’t make him a better actor, it makes him more devoted and committed to the role.

Does it make him a better actor? We refer to it as “method acting.” ‘If I’ve got to look — if I’ve got to play a skinny person, I’ll become a skinny person.’ To me, it would be much more convincing and a display of real acting skill if a fat person could convince me that he is skinny.

So for example, which is more impressive for a 13-year-old boy to play the role of a 13-year-old boy or a 30-year-old man to play the role of a 13-year-old boy and convince you that he is truly 13? So, I’m using that as an example because there was a musical I saw once in London where an adult man played the role of a 12-year-old boy and he convinced me that he was 12 years of age.

He didn’t cut his hair or shrink himself or do anything else physically. His energy, his voice, his movement, his behavior, his posture, his innocence, his curiosity convinced me that he is a young boy. Again, the reason we’re convinced is because the transformation that Matthew McConaughey is making is so dramatic, so extreme, we think, “Oh, he is going to be playing this role very well.” But what emotion is he conveying in the role? We wouldn’t know until we watch the movie.

Natalia: Okay.

Patrick: Also, another reason that Matthew McConaughey stands out right now for having lost so much weight and appearing emaciated is because he is a person that’s recognized for the beauty of his physical body. He often loves to show you his chest. He loves to take his shirt off and show you his chest. And then in a lot of his movies, he plays that charismatic, sexy, attractive, manly role. For him to do the opposite, it shocks us even more.

Natalia: Perfect! You mentioned that we as viewers are very much impressed when we see these traumatic transformations and —

Patrick: “Dramatic.”

Natalia: Yes. And actors are sometimes awarded because of them, because it shows their commitment to the role and the whole works.

Patrick: Right, yes.

Natalia: And that’s fine for us as the average viewer, but why are the critics so ecstatic when actors make dramatic physical transformations? This is their job after all.

Patrick: For exactly the same reasons; the critics look at it and say, “He had to give more of himself. He had to devote more time. He had to sacrifice something.” For someone to lose 40-50 pounds and then become that sick means he has to stop being a spoiled celebrity and he has to think first of his art.

So it shows sacrifice, devotion, commitment, integrity, where the actor says, “I’m going to give up my joy and happiness and my pleasure for three months and I’m going to make myself physically sick.” I mean, Anne Hathaway did the same thing. She couldn’t go out to fancy restaurants, she couldn’t go on vacations and be playing and partying, she had to actually make a sacrifice. She lived on 500 calories for a long period of time.

And therefore, the critics respond to that because they say, “Oh, the person is putting their art first.” It’s the same concept we have about an artist. We think an artist is better if they’re broke and they’re poor. “They are a starving artist. They’re suffering.”

So when we think that someone is suffering for their art, we think that they are a better person, that they’re more talented, and, we give more credence and attach more value to their art and acting. It doesn’t mean they’re more talented, it simply means they’re more devoted and dedicated.

The same thing with Matt Damon, when Matt Damon was doing The Bourne Identity, he had to do special training. He did special combat training and he did special training for driving. The difference is that today, we expect a lot more from actors and we expect them to have many more skills, we expect them to do their own stunt.

Natalia: Yes. Now back to the technical aspect of this. Whenever an actor or an actress either gains or loses significant amounts of weight, who should they have in their team – a trainer, a nutritionist?

What is that they should do to do this in a sort of responsible way, because — for example, Christian Bale, when he lost all that weight for the Machinist, he said that he lost it all so fast and – eating an apple and a cup of coffee a day which is, of course, absolutely absurd. So what is it that actors should do to do this responsibly?

Patrick: Well, the first question is, “What is the timeline? What is the deadline?” If an actor has three or six months to prepare for the role, he can do it much more gradually, much more safely and still do it effectively. If he has less time, then he has to do it in a much harsher and more extreme way.

The safest and the best way to do it is that that person is monitored by the entire team. It’s not just a team of a trainer. It’s a trainer, a nutritionist, a doctor. So there’s a whole team of people keeping an eye on you to make sure that, yes, you lose the weight but then you don’t harm yourself.

Of course, there is going to be some harm to the body. No matter whether you are being monitored and supervised, when you are doing that to your body, you’re harming yourself. All you’re trying to do with a professional team of nutritionists, doctors, and trainers is minimize the long-term damage to the body.

Natalia: What would that long-term damage entail? Jared Leto, he’s also playing an AIDS patient in this Matthew McConaughey film but Matthew McConaughey had like good six months to lose the weight whereas Jared Leto lost something ridiculous like 70 pounds in a month or something to play alongside him. So what could possibly be the long-term damage there?

Patrick: Well, the most obvious is damage to the organs. Damage to the organs, damage to the Endocrine System, damage to the Nervous System; it all depends on what you’re doing, for how long you’re doing it, and how harshly you are doing it.

Natalia: If it came down to you, what would your personal recommendation be to get to the desired weight, whether it is to put on a lot of weight or to lose, because for example, Sally Field, for her Lincoln role, she put on quite a lot of weight for her very, very tiny frame and she had to had knee surgery because she couldn’t bear with it.

Patrick: Well, my expertise is human behavior, although I do also focus on the link between the body and mind. Speaking personally though, I would never recommend anyone to do any of these roles anyway because I don’t believe in damaging your body whether it’s losing weight or putting on weight.

If you’re doing anything that’s damaging your body, I would never recommend that because my whole teaching is to do what’s good for you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And anytime you engage in extreme weight gain or weight loss, you are creating trauma – mental, physical and emotional trauma.

However, if you’d make the decision to do this for a movie role, doing it gradually is always better than doing it in an extreme manner.

Natalia: Perfect! Thank you for your responses and insights.

Patrick: You’re welcome.

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